Brett Sheehy has been Artistic Director of the Adelaide Festival of Arts since March 2004. This year’s festival, opening on the 29th of February will be his last as he takes the reins of the Melbourne International Arts Festival from 2009. Formerly the Festival Director & Chief Executive of Sydney Festival from 2002 to 2005 – and the Festival’s Deputy Director from 1995 to 2001 – Sheehy has held some of the top jobs in Australia’s arts and festivals industry – he was, among many other posts, the Artistic Associate, Literary Manager and Deputy General Manager of the Sydney Theatre Company, a member of the Sydney Writers’ Festival Committee, he served on the the boards of the Australian Theatre for Young People, the Committee for Sydney, the Arts Advisory Group of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and he’s currently a member of the Artists’ Advisory Panel of the Bell Shakespeare Company. If that weren’t enough, Sheehy also has a swag of awards for his work as a writer and dramaturge.
Sheehy spoke to The Art Life from Melbourne about the visual arts programs of the Adelaide Festival, Handle With Care: The 2008 Biennial of Australian Art and his time as director of the Sydney Festival.
Your official biography makes much of the fact that under your direction the Adelaide Festival has broken a lot of box office records. Is that the measure of success for a festival?
Brett Sheehy: I don’t think so. People coming to shows translates into money. But the money is not important, but reaching audiences is really important. I have to believe that if I give 10,000 people an extraordinary artistic experience, and I can give exactly the same experience to 100,000 people, then I’ve been more successful. I feel that most strongly for capital city festivals because the festival is owned by the population of the cities in which we do them. Actually, putting great art in front of, or into the lives as many people as possible is the mission. In an ideal world I would kill to be given a straight pure grant, have no box office, and make all the events free. You know, forget about the income and reach as many people as possible.
You’ve been involved with a lot of different festivals and art events around the country. How do you balance the expectations of all the various audiences and your ability to meet those expectations?
BS: Yeah! That’s something you don’t really learn until you get into the city. Every city is unique and has its own idiosyncrasies. I think that any festival a marriage of the taste, personality and style of the city with the taste, personality and style of the director. Where ever you go as a director your festivals are going to be different and reflect where ever you happen to be. That said, in terms of the audiences, I certainly don’t resile from committing myself to a production or developing work in case I believe an audience might be more conservative or more adventurous. I think Australian audiences are pretty fantastic audiences. They’re up for anything. I think we’re blessed as festival directors something is in the context of a festival Australian audiences think, let’s give this a go. I think it’s much tougher for the separate, niche events – whether its galleries, theatre or opera companies, symphonies – I think it’s tougher haul for them presenting more adventurous work.
The Adelaide Festival is almost unique in that it has two other festivals under its umbrella – the visual arts week, the writers week – and both of those are very factionalised in terms of interests within their audiences.
BS: They are. I retained both of those weeks as boutique festivals-within-festivals because I think most of the international art festivals are 90 to 100 percent performing arts, I don’t like to see any art form being separated out and ignored within the context of the celebration of an artistic zeitgeist. One option is to fold all of those things into the general festival program but I like the fact that Adelaide gets to say that the visual arts and literature are critical parts of the contemporary discourse. We’re not going to ignore them. In fact, we’re going to celebrate them. I’ve always wanted to include visual arts as part of my festivals. When I first joined the Sydney Festival, the Sydney Writers Festival was also part of it. It split from the Sydney Festival in 1999. I didn’t want it to go and once I became director I couldn’t get it back because it had become its own entity. In terms of visual arts, I knew a lot less about it when I was planning my first Sydney Festival for 2002, but as I have gained more confidence and established relationships with curators and gallery directors, working with Julianne Pierce and Sue Saxon, I think I’ve had the confidence to grow the visual arts as an element of my festivals. It’s also something I just personally love. I’ve loved putting on public art works Michael Reily‘s Cloud Banner, Craig Walsh‘s fish swimming through the windows in Martin Place, David Byrne‘s sculptural work, Cherine Fahd and Trent Parke’s photo installations. I think the reason that visual arts gets neglected so often in international festivals is that you’re putting a match to a fair chunk of your program.
Putting a match to it? How do you mean?
BS: The visual arts program I’m presenting currently now sits somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million. That could have gone to three more music ensembles and four more boutique theatre productions – just in terms of the net cost. Most performing arts festival directors would say, well, that’s what I’m going to do an leave the visual arts out. The other thing is when the media comes to sum up what you’ve done in the festival, it’s usually a summation done by a performing arts writer. In fact, I’ve never seen any of our international festivals having their holistic wrap-up done by a visual arts writer. What it means is that you’re putting a lot of money, effort and programming energy into a section of work that usually tends to get ignored.
Would you, when you were director of the Sydney Festival, be looking at the Sydney Biennale and saying, they’re doing this job at this level, why would would we duplicate it?
BS: Absolutely. I was really conscious of that in Sydney and that is why the works that we did tended to be public art works that engaged with drive-by or walk-by audiences rather than curating work internally. In Adelaide where there is much less of an opportunity for audiences to see international visual art, that’s where I can bring in someone like Doug Aitken who is doing the key note address. What I’ll do in Melbourne? I don’t know yet. Melbourne has such a tradition and incredibly strong visual arts cache and culture already existing, I need to get my head around that and do something relevant to Melbourne separate from that raft of international work seen here. In Adelaide, I co-present the Biennial of Australian Art, which is the only biannual survey of Australian art.
It is indeed. Are you looking at the Biennial in relation to events such as the Sydney Biennale or the Asia-Pacific Triennial?
BS: Absolutely. Because it is comprised entirely of Australian artists – and Felicity [Fenner, 2008 Adelaide Biennial curator] can answer this much better than I as we give her completely free run as curator – but I try to ensure that what happens in Adelaide is special and potentially a destination for people such as Art Life readers and curators, directors, arts writers and audiences in general to come to Adelaide to see what’s being done here.
So you’re looking at Aitken as a draw card?
BS: One thing I love doing as festival director is developing relationships with artists. I remember when I presented David Byrne’s Eyeball Show in 2002. That began a relationship with him that continued to Adelaide with his music theatre work Here Lies Love, the work about Imelda Marcos. That relationship [with Aitken] may go further. In terms of the curation of festivals, those relationships are good things, not just for Adelaide or Melbourne, but for Australia.
The Biennial is the largest part of the visual art program. You said before that you gave Felicity Fenner free reign, but what is the brief for the Biennial given that there is no other survey of Australian art at that scale?
BS: That’s a question for the gallery. When I say “I”, I mean in terms of someone who is co-funding the event, I’m completely hands-off. The [Art Gallery of South Australia] and I have a discussion about potential curators and the gallery are the ones who manage it. At the end of the process they’ll recommend someone…
What’s the organisational relationship between what you do and the Biennial. Is there an expectation that the Biennial is going to do a certain thing?
BS: From my point of view as the co-presenter is that the Biennial is simply a survey of contemporary Australian art. That’s the maximum prescription from the Festival in support of the Biennial. The Gallery then runs with finding the curator and deciding on the theme.
So what is your measure of success for the overall visual arts program?
BS: Oh god… Good question! I don’t think its our job to even begin to try to compete with the Sydney Biennale, for example. My view of of the visual arts program is to reach audiences who perhaps aren’t regular visual arts audiences. Obviously the majority of my audiences are people
coming to theatre, dance, music, opera – hopefully they will explore other art forms. One of the reasons doing Northern Lights, which is our lighting celebration of North Terrace, is to have the hope that people will see lighting used in a playful and festive way, and then one would hope that they will see that there’s a whole raft of artists using light as the medium for their work, and there’s a generation beyond Dan Flavin and James Turrell who are using light in new and interesting ways. My wish is that visual arts finds a new audience and that we can pull in people who may have never set foot in a gallery. That’s my personal wish. You also measure it by attendance. And I’m as sensitive as anyone to what people like The Art Life might say, what the critical reaction is. I would be more sensitive to the critical reaction to the Biennial than to the reaction to the overall theatrical exhibition program.
Are Writers Week and Artists Week going to be on at different times this year?
BS: They’re not! And I’m sorry for that actually… I would love to see them separated. Integral to Writers Week is the support from publishers from all around the country. In terms of their schedule it’s most beneficial to kick off. At the same time I couldn’t bear the thought of having all the galleries dark for the first week and then kick off Artists Week a week later. I have tried my best to schedule all of the key note and major events in both programs to allow one to map out attendance and be able to go all the major events. There are overlaps. I would love to see the Writers and Artists weeks to be separate. I haven’t cracked it yet!